Posted by: gcarkner | September 20, 2012

Are Christians Irrelevant to Society?

Are Christians other-worldly and irrelevant to life in this century?

That depends on one’s perspective. This accusation often rings true. Many Christians certainly seem other-worldly and even possibly irrelevant; many hide their head in the sand and wish for a quick end of the world. Where’s the courage, hope and compassion in that? But this does not reflect the main emphasis of the Bible, within which Christian teaching is located and inspired. Far from being other-worldly, biblical Christianity emphasizes the importance of this world in three major ways.

First, the Bible claims that the entire universe is created by God and is therefore good and significant. Far from negating or devaluing the world, the Bible teaches that God loves and enjoys his creation. He sustains its continued structure and existence, its laws or regularities. This world exists to manifest God ‘s glory (Psalm 8), and he celebrates what he has made.  He loves all creatures, animate and inanimate. The physical stuff of this world is important.

This rich and profound, yet poorly understood idea of creation (S. Bouma-Prediger), is absolutely vital in understanding what is distinctive about the Judeo-Christian religion. It has significant implications for knowledge of self,  and study of the world, promoting a fundamental posture regarding reality. The repeated phrase in Genesis 1: “And it was good”, reveals that this world is God-shaped, a product of his passion for creativity, goodness and beauty.  This conviction entails a significant mandate for human life,  curiosity and creativity; the philosophical implications are astounding.

But the importance of this world is supported also by a belief in the incarnation, the Christian claim that God became man in Jesus Christ, a view unique to Christianity among the three great  theistic religions (including Judaism & Islam). The authentic humanity of Jesus is constantly affirmed by the Bible; he appears as very human and socially embedded (N.T. Wright). He was not just some spiritual manifestation or temporary avatar, but a real life, flesh and blood person, a historical Jesus (N.T. Wright). The people who were dignified and helped by him thought him very relevant. He empathized with them, taught, fed and healed them.

But why the incarnation? Because creation went wrong. Humanity has chosen evil in rebellion against its Creator, and the world is no longer totally good; it remains a mixture of good and perverse/twisted (fruitfulness and pollution); humans show responsible stewardship and careless irresponsibility. Yet God has not given up on humanity. This is the dramatic and exciting message of Christianity; we are not  abandoned on spaceship earth. God clearly loves humans intensely, to the point of becoming a human being to free us from the evil that has ensnarled our lives. His intention is to bring healing, freedom and salvation (not a quick escape).

The salvation/rescue God offers constitutes the third way in which biblical Christianity affirms the importance of this world. Though Christianity is often caricatured as a pie·in·the·sky religion, concerned with a hereafter of disembodied existence in an ethereal heaven, this is a gross distortion of its message, a thin version. There is certainly a future hope of the kingdom of God. But the Bible describes this kingdom in the most concrete, lived experience terms. It promises the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the entire creation.

Salvation is holistic, both spiritual and physical; God cares about every dimension of his creation. Christianity’s final vision is of the eradication of evil from the universe and the restoration of culture (Andy Crouch, Culture Making) and creature relationships. It entails the restoration of the human mandate to be artists and gardeners, culture makers and good stewards. Christ came to restore the creation to what it was meant to be, and that includes every aspect of human and non·human life (Romans 8). Christianity is sincerely concerned about human flourishing and well-being.

This means that there is an important sense in which Christians must be other-worldly. Precisely because they envision a world free of evil, both at the beginning and at the end of history, they cannot accept this world at face value. They are other-worldly in that they look beyond the distortions and pretensions of this society to the one which is to come; this is part of their hope for a renewed future. They long deeply and hope for something better.

But paradoxically that means that they are fundamentally this-worldly. Christians are called to oppose evil and injustice in all of its individual,  biological, institutional and socio-cultural manifestations. They have a vision of the common good and of a virtuous society, however hard this is to accomplish. They work toward healing, love, mercy and justice in this world. They take responsibility for the neighbourhood as well as for those around the globe whom they have not even met, compelled by love. They care about their environmental and their resource consumption footprint. In the context of our 21st century civilization of violence, oppression, consumerism and narcissism, this call is neither other·worldly nor irrelevant. It is as current and strategic as it has ever been. Voices like Jean Vanier, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Charles Taylor, Ron Sider, Steven Bouma-Prediger should also be consulted on this question.

Gord Carkner (appreciation to H. Gruning, R. Middleton, & B. Toombs)

Think About It

Reading Suggestions:

Jens Zimmerman, Incarnational Humanism: a philosophy of culture for the church in the world.

David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies. (Yale, 2009).

Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth.

Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (2006)

N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus?

John Dickson, DVD Life of Jesus

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